Nicolai Ion 16
WORDS Matt Wragg
PHOTOS Alex Boyce
Nicolai hold an unusual place in the world of mountain biking, they are in equal parts adored and ridiculed. There seems to be little middle ground for them in people's opinions. To some they are German engineering at its best, aluminium lovingly sculpted into trail-worshiping perfection. To others they are the kooks who over-engineer everything and gleefully lash the weirdest technology onto their bikes. Over the years they have certainly tried pretty much every gearbox and drivetrain system we can think of - from their own Gboxx gearbox project
, to carbon belt drives
, Truvativ Hammerschmitt geared cranks
and, most recently, the Pinion gearbox
. The aesthetics are also a love or hate affair. When we posted a photo of this Ion 16 test bike on Instagram, one prominent mountain bike journalist suggested the most fun we could have with it would be using it as a ladder.
If truth be told, I fell into the second category in the past too. I thought they were fashion bikes bought by fat, older riders for car park points simply because they were a bit different. But that's the problem with prejudices, the word originally stems from latin, literally it means to pre-judge. Drawing your conclusions before you fully appreciate something invariably leads to you being dead wrong...Details:
• Purpose: All-mountain/Enduro/DH
• Handmade in Germany
• 160mm rear travel with Rock Shox Monarch Plus shock
• 65/66 degree headangle
• 426mm chainstays
• Sizes: Small, medium, large (tested), X-large and XX-large (on special order)
• Weight: 7.08lbs/3.2 kg (Size M, black anodize, w/o shock)
• MSRP: €2,199 The Frame
All Nicolais are hand built in their tiny farmhouse headquarters in Northern Germany. Craftsmanship is spliced with well-thought-out design over the entire length of the bike. At the front is a sturdy tapered head tube, big enough to accommodate a zero-stack headset. Behind is the external bracing, something which is gone from most of the major bike manufacturers bikes today. With hydroforming, manufacturers can make the tubing bigger where it needs to be to provide additional strength, removing the need for external reinforcement. Yet Nicolai take a simpler path - their tubes are smaller and keep the same diameter throughout their entire length, but need this kind of support at critical points. While external bracing may sound somewhat agricultural, when you look closely, the execution is elegant, with excess material machined away to reduce weight and, at the seatpost braces, the word Ion is machined into the plates.
A similar situation is found in the shock mount and the point where the linkage is mounted to the mainframe, they are welded onto the downtube, but with any excess material carefully removed. Cabling is taken along the top of the downtube, kept in place by anodized carriers. One detail that shows this bikes was designed to survive in muddy conditions is the fact that the split in the seattube for the clamp is at the front, which means it stays out of the mud that sprays up the back of the bike. At the base of the shock is a chip that switches the bike from low to high settings. In the low setting the headangle goes from 66 to 65 degrees and the bottom bracket drops 9mm further.
Around the bottom bracket is an ISCG05 mount and it uses a standard, screw-in bottom bracket. Reaching the rear triangle the tubing changes from round tubes to a big, bulky, square profile and it is here that the Ion 16's genealogy from the Ion 20 downhill bike really shows through. At the back of the bike, the rear axle is simultaneously pared back to the bare minimum metal, but hugely strong with a giant, DH-style axle holding the rear wheel in place. Nicolai say that if you order one of these you can choose between that axle system and a more user-friendly Maxle option. As a signal of the bike's intentions, the rear disc mount is a post mount type, dedicated to 180mm rotors - you can't run little rotors to save a few grams here. Finally, on the drive side, is a sturdy plastic protector, held on by Allen-key bolts at either end.Suspension
To actuate the shock is a single, large CNC'd piece with exquisite detailing on the faces. It houses the huge, quadruple-sealed bearings that keep the rear end moving. Nicolai claim to have tested this bike in the gritty, Scottish mud and reliability and durability were definitely at the forefront of their minds when they designed this bike. The shock mounting system is worth a mention, as it is one of the most user-friendly systems we have seen in a long time. You can easily remove the shock with two Allen keys and a single pair of human hands. Pivoting behind the bottom bracket, the chainstays then pivot again, three inches in front of the rear axle in a conventional four-bar linkage. The Spec
We won't dwell long on the spec because first and foremost, Nicolai are a framebuilder, so they let you spec the bike as you want. Our test bike came with a full SRAM setup, XX1 on the drivetrain, Avid XO trail brakes to stop the bike, a RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post to hold the saddle in place, a RockShox Monarch Plus shock to control the rear end and a nice, beefy RockShox Lyrik RC2 fork out front. Wheels were Hope Pro II Evos, laced to Stan's Flow EX rims and shod with 2.5/2/4 Maxxis Minion tyres with the Exo Protect casing. One little detail we liked is that the bike came with the Reverb remote mounted on the left, underneath the bar to keep it out of the way when you eat dirt.
After to talking to Nicolai, we opted for a large frame and a 35mm stem for a 5'9" test rider, for the entire test we also kept the bike's adjustable chip in the lower setting. We mention this now, as it heavily influenced our time riding the Ion. The idea was to move the front-centre forwards, putting more weight over the front wheel to give more traction. One unexpected advantage of this was pedaling position - the extra length really opened up our chest, making breathing easier. However, this does, in our opinion, sacrifice some of the all-round usability of a bike, especially mated to the 65 degree head angle. The bike felt like it needed high speeds to come alive when we started descending. This isn't a complaint, we asked for the bike like this, but a shorter top tube and flicking the bike into the higher setting would make it a more usable bike, more of the time.Climbing:
As it was set, the Ion climbed adequately on fireroads, which is typically where you end up ascending in the big mountain terrain where this bike is at home. The four-bar linkage is very active and downhill-oriented, so the lack of a pedal platform on the Monarch Plus shock was noticeable in its absence. Nicolai had hoped to send us the bike with a Cane Creek Double Barrel shock and we would be interested to see how the bike climbs with the DB 'Climb Switch' feature, as we'd be willing to bet it would open the bike up to improved general all-mountain duties.
On technical singletrack the combination of the slack head angle and long top tube meant the front end had a tendency to wander away from us when we sat back in the saddle for steep sections. When we stood up, the active suspension meant lost power. It by no means struggled at climbing, and the bike's surprising light weight definitely helped, but there are plenty of bikes in the 160mm travel bracket that will out-climb the Ion 16.Downhill:
When we got to the descents is where this bike came into its own. We're not entirely sure what to compare it to, because it seems almost unfair to compare it to virtually any other 160mm bike we can think of. The way the rear end works put us in mind of a full-blown DH bike, and the long top tube and 65-degree head angle only helped to reinforce this impression. It is stiff too, while the bolt-through rear axle option our test bike came with is likely to prove a nightmare for enduro racers who want quick tyre changes and emergency trailside repairs, it certainly sures things up at the back. The active four-bar linkage lets you decide how you want to ride the bike. If you're happy to remain neutra,l it stays composed and easy to manage, but if you decide to, you can push the bike to build speed by working the terrain.
The short, 426mm chainstays let you flick the back end to wherever you need it. Four-bar linkages like this one, are well-proven to be one of the best performing systems out there during hard braking, and this bike is no exception. It remains active all the time. With the weight shifted towards front-centre (the build that we went for)
you will need to adapt to the bike. Don't expect to jump on and get the most out of the bike straight away. However, once you get a feel for it, it makes an already competent descending bike even better. Putting the Ion 16 through its paces, we rode in the alpine terrain of Sospel and Sauze D'Oulx where it felt at home - but with our setup, it would simply be too much bike for many places. Yes, as we said previously, a shorter top tube and running the chip at the higher setting would help make it more of a trailbike, but the way the suspension feels means it is always going to be a bike that is more focused on smashing descents than conquering the whole mountain. If you don't have a large mountain to play with, then finding the speed to get this bike to really shine is going to be tough.Pinkbikes Take:
| I couldn't have been more wrong about Nicolai bikes if I tried. Life is full of practicalities. Practical kitchen appliances, practical cars, practical shoes for work...this isn't a practical bike. Craftsmanship like this comes at a price, the frameset is several hundred Euros more expensive than the equivalent Yeti SB66 or Santa Cruz Nomad. In the cross-country/trail sense, the Ion 16 isn't a great all-mountain bike.There are more efficient bikes for that purpose. If you don't live in the mountains you will probably struggle to find the terrain you need to enjoy this bike. It isn't even an ideal enduro race bike, as those bikes head towards being 11kg carbon thoroughbreds. This Nicolai just doesn't fit the mold, and you know what? I don't care about any of those things. The simple fact is that every time I got this bike up to speed, it put a huge grin on my face. I'll worry about the rest of my life being practical. I want my mountain bikes to be fun. - Matt Wragg|